For almost four years now, electrical industry leaders have nervously shook their heads and wrung their hands at the mere mention of the economic state of the market, despairing for their bottom lines and desperately clinging to any indication that all the red ink in their ledgers would soon be replaced with black. But now that the worst is over and economists are forecasting a gradual turnaround, those same people who couldn't wait for business to improve may have reason to hope it doesn't recover too quickly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the number of construction industry jobs could rise by 13% from 6.8 million in March of this year to 7.7 million by 2012. Electricians accounted for roughly 584,000 of those jobs in 2003, or 8.5%, and if you apply that percentage to the predictions for the number of construction jobs in 2012, that works out to about 654,500 electricians, or an increase of 70,500 positions.

That number becomes even more intimidating in light of the fact that a large percentage of the Baby Boomer generation will reach retirement age in the next decade and create even more job openings. Some members of the electrical industry estimate that as much as 15% of electricians are 50 years or older, which means another 87,600 positions could open up.

Instead of fretting over the task of filling all those jobs over the next eight years, Emily Stover DeRocco sees it as a challenge. The U.S. assistant secretary for employment and training has been working for two years to put together a plan to educate the public about the skilled trades, and her efforts came to fruition this April with the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) launch of the Skills to Build America's Future initiative, a $2 million nationwide outreach and education campaign. “We know this industry is a great opportunity for young people and transitioning workers, yet there really isn't enough information available about the kinds of occupations and careers that are available, what kinds of skills are needed, and how to access them,” she says. “It's an important first step in what we hope will be a growing commitment.”

Among those the DOL plans to partner with in spreading the word about employment, specifically in the electrical industry, are representatives of union and nonunion contractors. With or without the help of the federal government, though, the IBEW and IEC have already been playing recruitment videos in high school industrial technology classes, blanketing guidance counselors' offices with informational pamphlets, and setting up their booths at local job fairs to recruit the next generation of electrical workers.

Like most kids his age, Bryan Berger doesn't worry much about economic trends or the future of the electrical trade. The 17-year-old Cincinnati resident is more interested in hanging out with his friends, playing Playstation, and getting good grades in school. Unlike most kids his age, though, he has chosen a career and already taken a huge step toward starting it. He's enrolled in the Youth Apprenticeship Program, a joint effort between the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC) of Greater Cincinnati and the Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development, which allows select students to enter a four-year apprenticeship program at the beginning of their junior year in vocational or high school. At the end of their senior year, kids like Berger still have two years before they become journeymen electricians, but they'll be that much farther ahead of those who waited until graduating high school to enter an apprenticeship program.

To be accepted in the program, students have to earn As and Bs and have a good attendance record. They also have to maintain that level of performance once enrolled, which is no easy task with the schedule they keep. Berger attends electrical construction classes at the Scarlet Oaks career center in Cincinnati two days a week, apprentices for a local contractor three days a week, and attends the classroom portion of the apprenticeship program one night a week. It's a small sacrifice for someone who has known since he was in grade school that he wanted to be an electrician. “I've just always liked to work with electricity and wiring,” he says. “So I'm excited to get started in the trade this early.”

A tale of two programs. For electricians in Cincinnati and Cleveland, it hasn't been the worst of times, but it certainly hasn't been the best of times either. The electrical construction markets in both cities have been hit by unemployment, but a recovery may be on the horizon, and recruitment efforts are underway. After moving over to the human resources side of the electrical business three years ago, Steve Denier, workforce administrator for Cincinnati-based Denier Electric, has made recruitment his number one priority. He immediately became involved with the IEC of Greater Cincinnati's apprenticeship and training committee and last year helped to create a four-person recruitment subcommittee in the hopes of generating interest in the trade. “I didn't want to take this position and just move manpower around on different construction sites,” he says. “And I didn't want to wait for people to walk in the door. What I want is to go out and actively try to find the most qualified people for the job.”

To a large extent, that means making frequent trips to local high schools and career centers to introduce himself to students and introduce them to the trade. Many of them haven't given much thought to their post-high school plans, so Denier has the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and help them figure out where their interests lie. “There are those kids who want to go to college, but I see a lot who don't know what they want to do,” he says. “You give them direction and you keep pushing them to do well, and that's what gets them involved in the trade.”

In the other corner of the state, Gene Stepanik, training director for the Cleveland Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (CEJATC) of NECA and the IBEW, is also busy dropping in on high school classes. He estimates he has made around 25 total visits this year to 20 schools around the city, several of which were in minority areas. African Americans, Asians, and Latinos combined to made up roughly 19% of the electrical workforce in 2003. Stepanik says he'll never pass up an opportunity to make visits to minority schools, and in those cases he'll typically bring a minority apprentice or journeyman with him so the students can see the trade is open to them as well. “That way they realize, ‘There's a person like me who's doing this for a living and is successful,’” he says.

Stepanik has also started to include grade schools in his classroom tours. Instead of calling them recruitment trips, he likes to consider them “career exposure” days. Some grade schools in the area include nontraditional units in their lesson plans and invite outside “teachers” like Stepanik to come in and lead the class for a day. “The schools see that as an opportunity to bring people in from various career paths to relate schoolwork to everyday life,” he says. “And the teachers appreciate it because we can show how math and reading skills apply to our job.”

Career fairs hosted by high schools and local municipalities are another favorite destination of Stepanik and Denier. Both set up booths, bring hands-on materials, and organize special activities that will attract attention. “It's tough to follow the fireman or the policeman who's from the K-9 unit,” Stepanik says. “So you have to have something that really piques their interest.”

Fairs provide one important thing that classroom visits don't: an audience more likely to be interested in the message. When Denier and Stepanik speak to high school classes, they know they're only getting through to a few students in the room, but in a setting where kids are actively seeking out information, such as a career fair, they have a better chance of engaging prospective apprentices and holding their attention. It doesn't hurt that the students' parents — some of recruitment officers' greatest allies — are often with them. “You get to build a relationship with not only the student, but the parent as well,” Denier says. “That way the message is going beyond the student to someone they trust and who can help them make those kinds of career choices.”

College isn't the only choice. The challenge in recruiting for the predicted worker shortage extends beyond a pure numbers game. Many high schools have touted college as the best choice for post-secondary education, which has kept many talented candidates from entering an apprenticeship program or even learning that opportunities in the electrical industry exist, says Bob Baird, vice president of apprenticeship and training, standards, and safety of the IEC. As a result, for those who do become apprentices, the electrical industry is more likely to be a second choice. “For the last 25 years, educators have been telling our kids that the key to a successful career is a college degree,” he says. “That's the wrong philosophy. The right philosophy is that lifelong learning is important and that there are many occupations — especially the skilled trades and electrical work — for which the initial training is not received in a four-year university. We can't ignore such a large sector of our economy or the nation's large need for skilled workers.”

DeRocco agrees. “There are multiple educational routes to get good jobs in construction,” she says. “So we need to create as many alternate pathways for young people in post-secondary education and training as possible.”

Some local IEC and JATC programs offer transfer credits upon completion of their apprenticeships that can be used toward other degrees. If newly minted journeymen and women from the four-year IEC program in Cincinnati should decide that installation or maintenance of electrical equipment isn't what they had hoped it would be, they'll have 41 credits to put toward a 92-credit associate's degree in something like construction management at local Hocking College. “That's a good tool for them to use if they want to go beyond just being a journeyman,” Denier says. “They can get the education necessary to be a field project manager or a contract manager, or they can even go into something like purchasing or sales.”

Apprentices who complete the CEJATC program in Cleveland have 31 credits to apply toward an associate's degree at Cuyahoga Community College, and as an extra bonus, that degree will give them junior standing at Kent State University. “If you're in no hurry to get your degree, it's a good approach to a four-year degree,” Stepanik says.

For him, convincing high school students of the merits of the apprenticeship program often comes down to a simple issue of economics. If they're still concerned that going to college is the best way to get started in life, he'll compare the cost of going to a state school to that of the apprenticeship program. At Akron University, which Stepanik graduated from, a four-year degree can cost $38,000 to $40,000. A five-year apprenticeship through the CEJATC will cost $2,400, plus apprentices will be earning money while they work. A third-year apprentice can make $12 to $13 an hour, which is as much as a lot of college graduates make. “That opens some eyes,” he says.

When he tells some of his former classmates at the affluent high school he attended through his sophomore year what he's doing Berger encounters some of that skepticism, but his answer usually turns the conversation around 180°. “They'll turn up their noses when I tell them I'm doing an apprenticeship and they say, ‘Why would you do that?’” he says. “It's funny because I tell them what I get to do everyday and that I'm making money and then they start asking me where they can sign up.”

Building relationships. The chance meeting with someone from his old school isn't the only time Berger gets to share his experiences with kids his age. Since starting the program, he has made a couple trips to local schools with Denier's foremen to talk about the program, explain why he got involved, and offer an example of the opportunities the trade can provide. Bringing apprentices along to serve as success stories is one of the methods Denier uses to turn presentations that might be treated by students as nap time into engaging conversations that get them excited about the trade.

Getting their attention — and keeping it — is vital to making sure the message gets across. “You've probably got a quarter of them who are either sleeping or not paying attention,” he says. “A lot of what helps for me is that I visit these schools on a monthly basis, so they see that I'm interested in helping them make career choices, and that makes them more likely to listen when I tell them that they have an opportunity right now to work for a contractor even while they're in school.”

It's building those relationships that helps Denier make the most progress. He's convinced that one trip to a school will be forgotten by the end of the day, because most of the students he encounters are either too shy or intimidated by him and the job foremen he brings with him to talk to or ask questions. But when they see him around the building or in their class several times, they're more comfortable approaching him. “At first, they see a bunch of these contractors there, and they don't know what to do,” he says. “That's why relationship-building is the most important thing.”

And even if it doesn't get them interested in applying for the program right away, that time investment can pay off later when students find themselves at a career crossroads and have difficulty deciding what to do next. “Maybe they've tried college and they've either failed out, lost interest in what they were studying, or don't have the money to keep going,” Stepanik says. “Hopefully they'll come to us. Our hope is that they'll say, ‘I remember this guy talking about being in the trades and being an electrician. Maybe I should try that.’”

He knows how young high school graduates like that feel because he was one of them. After high school he went to a community college in the hopes of becoming a mechanical engineer, but after getting his associate's degree and moving on to a state school to continue his studies, he found the subject no longer interested him. It wasn't until his brother, who was a sheet metal worker, convinced him to try work in the trades that he found his calling. “So I give them a short personal history about how I got to where I am today and the opportunities that were afforded to me by going through the apprenticeship program.”

Aside from the obvious ways in which their work benefits the trades, both Stepanik and Denier derive a level of personal satisfaction that makes it more than just a job. This year Stepanik was the coach of a fifth grade Science Olympiad team, an experience he calls “gratifying.” “The kids were just great,” he says. “It was amazing how bright they were and what their focus was.”

For his part, Denier has taken the job of recruitment and turned it into something that borders almost on obsession, spending a lot of his free time coming up with new ways to attract kids to the electrical industry. In May he organized a charity golf outing to raise money for the program. Representatives from all aspects of the electrical industry attended, including employees from more than 30 contractors and local reps from companies like Eaton Electrical, Richards Electric Supply, and Graybar. The event raised more than $9,500 for the apprenticeship program. Denier says IEC plans to use the money to develop some videos for use in their presentations. It's the first of several extracurricular activities he has in the works to get more young kids interested in the trade, and even though it's starting to cut into his nights and weekends, he's more than happy to do it. “It's fun when you don't know what to expect from someone, and then in six months or a year they're doing things that you really didn't know they were capable of doing,” he says. “There's a lot of reward in it.”